I think I speak for a majority of Africa’s diaspora when I say that the mobile phone in Africa has made life away from our homes of origin much more bearable. The ability to instantly connect and have a conversation with family members allows us to maintain those family bonds that are so important to many of us. Unless your entire family migrated out of Africa, many of us still have loved ones on the ground that we are now able to connect to with ever increasing immediacy.
In a sense, the world has shrunk for us. It used to be that separation for the African diaspora meant vast distances marked by snail mail and connecting flights. Now that distance is reduced to the time it takes you to dial a number or send a text, or compose an email.
I am very close to my family in Uganda. So close in fact that i rarely make decisions without consulting them and vice versa. We operate like a well-oiled organization. We routinely check on each other’s progress with family meetings. As the older sibling, I am chided (in good fun of course) for still being single. We constantly fuss about the future of our younger siblings and their education, a unified effort to make sure that our family is well-equipped to survive in this world. We take a “no-sibling left behind” policy in our family. I Facebook chat with my sister Pam on a daily basis. It is the new, “after-tea conversation.”
This week, I had a Skype conference call with my brother Isaiah (an administrator at the local college, my sister Pam (general manager of UMPG), and my mother (a pastor and local councilwoman for her village). There wasn’t anything special about the call really, in fact, I had done it several times before. This time though, I had a huge smile on my face. Perhaps in retrospect, I was reliving my talk at SXSW. This is what I was talking about. I was living the future of a connected Africa, in real time. I was having the same out of body experience as one would have walking through a déja vu episode (I am always freaked out by those!).
At the SXSW presentation, I demonstrated the collaborative possibilities of a connected Africa with a live Skype interview with Appfrica Labs in Uganda, iHub in Kenya, and Limbe Labs in Cameroon (I am still saddened that I didn’t get to talk to Banta Labs in Senegal because of time constraints). I had also planned on making a call to my mom in the village so she could tell the audience what a difference having a mobile phone has made in her life. I failed to connect due to a bad network connection. Instead I did the next best thing. I called my mum a few days after the presentation and interviewed her for this post. You can listen to her interview below.
With 450 million mobile subscriptions on the continent, one can’t help but think of the possibilities, and what all this connectivity could mean for us. Milly lists some of the benefits (and challenges) of owning a mobile phone in the village. The greatest of which was the joy that she could talk to her son at any time (provided I called more often of course) without her having to take a 3 hour bus ride to Kampala so I can reach her on a land line. The accelerated penetration of mobiles predicted over the next three year is even more exciting. Stats point to nearly 50% of Africa’s population as under the age of 15; coming of age just as Africa gets ready to tap into over 18 terabytes of designed broadband capacity available to the continent by 2012.
The possibilities for the continent are endless, but to me, they are very real and personal.